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A Straight Stretch on the Far Side of Coolbrook

ISSUE:  Winter 2005

Henry S. Taylor, 1799–1866

From late childhood on, a fantasy I’ve kept
close to my chest is that I might meet old Henry S.,
at whose grave I’ve stood, in whose house often slept.
Neighboring Quakers made it their business,
when Coolbrook began to reveal what it would be,
to sit with him in inward inquiry whether less
of a house might better bespeak Friendly simplicity.
Who knows what that sober visitation wrought?
The rooms in silence hoard their deep posterity.

In the west gable date-stone, a year coarsely cut:
1827. Later descendants made
their own marks here, as postwar decades brought
fresh ways to pump household water upgrade,
or visions of a graceful first-floor bay window
at the front of the parlor, its foundation laid
in a hole dug at room’s edge with shovel and hoe
by Edgar Brent, a Black man of kindly patience:
when my father, still in his high chair, threw
his rattle so it landed by design or chance
in that pit at the parlor’s brink, he would climb
out, toy in hand, and with minimal circumstance
place it on the high chair tray. How much time
did Mr. Brent pass thus before I saw him myself,
gentle, distinguished, white-mustached, past prime,
dapper in straw Panama fresh from a clean shelf,
walking around Lincoln when I was just starting to?

I cast these lines back over the widening gulf
between now and then, when the farm was Henry B.’s, who
was the builder’s grandson and grandfather to me.
I sat with him as he paged lovingly through
Henry S.’s daybook, teaching me to see
hints of the passions and tedium underlying life there
in decades before he had yet come to be.

Tucked in the book, a letter of late 1864
to a daughter away at school, about Union burning raids.
There are only copies now; the original is no more,
having failed to emerge from a senescent haze
in which my father unwittingly set it afloat
when he lent it to an enthusiast of local antiquities
whose mind was melting down, who simply forgot
he’d borrowed it, then died. We have the words,
the daybook bristles with that hand, smooth but taut,
and sometimes I almost believe, as I listen to birds
in old trees up the back meadow, that among them one
speaks for him. I turn toward the bridge whose last boards
barely cling to the beams, beyond it the road gone,
washed out, grown up in woods, so thoroughly effaced
that I can doubt it was ever there to drive on,
though I did that myself in a life long since past.

From here some thirty rods downstream, the branch
runs straight as a canal. The meadow lying west
of the bank is marked with faint hummock and trench,
left when the man made up his mind, somewhere
around 1840, to straighten that one stretch
of Crooked Run and shove it all over there
to the base of the far hill pasture. I glance back
at a picture on my wall, some years post-Daguerre,
small enough to cover with thumb, but no slack
in that tension of straight gaze, set lips, tight jaw.
A few hired men armed with shovel and pick,
a team of oxen, were all he required to draw
this landscape according to his will. At the end
of the Civil War he said he favored a law
that Secesh be deprived of the vote and bound
for life to the use of iron spoons. He was apt
to know what to think of my wish to shake his hand.


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